To kill the famous Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, in Palermo, on May 23, 1993, the mafia used a half-ton of TNT, blowing up a piece of highway as the motorcade of the judge and his escort passed by.
He used to say that “joining the mafia is like embracing a new religion”. But from the point of view of many members of the mafia, the ‘ndrangheta and the camorra, there is no need to abandon Catholicism to belong to such criminal organizations.
Giuseppina Iacopetta was the wife of Fortunato Patania, a boss killed in a ‘ndrangheta feud in Stefanaconi, Calabria, Italy, in 2011, while he was playing cards. Once she was widowed, she replaced her husband as the head of his gang. She ordered her children to avenge their father by making sure that the blood of her rivals “flow in front of the door of my house.” To help them to identify the killers of their father, Giuseppina used to pray to Mary for the “grace” of her husband’s revenge, according to the Deputy Prosecutor of Cosenza (a Calabrian town), Marisa Manzini.
“In her life Giuseppina had seen only violence,” Manzini said, as if trying to justify the woman’s actions. But this episode shows how urgent it really is, to “free Mary from the mafias”, as Pope Francis exhorted last August: “Marian devotion is a religious-cultural heritage to be safeguarded in its original purity by freeing it from superstructures, powers or conditioning that does not correspond to the Gospel criteria of justice, liberty, honesty, and solidarity.”
The quotation comes from a letter, dated August 15, 2020, solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, sent by the Pontiff to Fr. Stefano Cecchin, President of the Pontifical International Marian Academy. The occasion was the launch—scheduled on September 18 in Rome—of a “Department of Analysis and Study of Criminal and Mafia-related Phenomena”, inside this Academy.
The department began its activity with two online conferences, December 10 (feast of Our Lady of Loreto) and December 17, gathering theologians and mariologists, along with judges, criminologists, lawyers, police officers, and more. They focused above all on the ‘ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, since it is undoubtedly the most influential and dangerous today, compared to the Sicilian mafia and the Neapolitan camorra.
Why is this question relevant to the Catholic Church? The ‘ndrangheta “has been able to take root all over the world. Its strength lies in maintaining a strong bond with the top management of the organization, who are in Calabria, and preserving its rites and traditions everywhere,” Salvatore Dolce explained. According to his experience as a magistrate of the Italian Anti-Mafia Directorate, the ‘ndrangheta rites follow everywhere the same ritual, in Calabria as in Switzerland, Germany, Australia or Canada, taking many symbols and contents from Catholicism, Christian liturgy and popular devotion.
On August 15, 2007, in Duisburg, Germany, outside an Italian pizzeria, six “’ndranghetisti” (men of a ‘ndrangheta gang or family) were killed at night with 70 gunshots by men of a rival family. The oldest victim was the restaurant owner. In the pocket of a boy, another victim just eighteen years old, policemen found a burnt holy card of St. Michael the Archangel. “It is very likely that they had just celebrated an affiliation rite, also given that the German police found holy cards and statues of St. Michael the Archangel inside the restaurant,” Deputy Prosecutor Manzini reported at the conference.
The description of an affiliation rite to the ‘ndrangheta is offered by the testimony of a former member. “They made a cross-shaped cut on my thumb, above the nail, to make three drops of blood fall on a plate. Then, to heal the wound, they burned half of a St. Michael the Archangel holy card and put the ashes on the cut.”
These rituals, Manzini added, are “the chain between past and present of the ‘ndrangheta. Saints are often invoked during affiliation ceremonies, called ‘baptisms’, as well as during subsequent rites of passage. The ‘ndranghetista who becomes a ‘vangelista’ [from the Italian for Gospel, “Vangelo”] swears fidelity keeping his hand on the Gospel.’
During several seizures of ‘ndrangheta gang property, the police have often found handwritten sheets with questions and answers of the initiation rites. Very often there is the reference to the legend of three Spanish knights who lived around 1400, Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso. They were forced to flee Spain after avenging the honor of their sister, violated by an arrogant lord. After hiding for 29 years in Favignana, a small island close to western Sicily, Osso founded the mafia in Sicily, Mastrosso founded the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria, and Carcagnosso the camorra in Naples.
This is just legend, but it serves to give new affiliates the idea of entering a very exclusive system of power. “There are guys willing to kill, indeed, to become a ‘ndrangheta member,” Manzini said, while the children of the most prominent ‘ndrangheta families are affiliated by “right of blood”.
Giuseppina Pesce was the wife of a boss. She decided to start collaborating with the investigators “to try to give a different destiny to my children. When my son said that he wanted to become a carabiniere [Italian policeman], his uncle beat him, then promised him that he would give him a gun.” Giuseppina’s repentance dates back to 10 years ago, but she still lives far from Calabria in a secret location. No need to say, in fact, that every mafia member must swear absolute loyalty when he joins a clan. “This means that you cannot avoid any request to carry out criminal actions. The mafia is a road from which it is not possible to go back: either you end up in jail or lying dead somewhere,” Renato Nitti, prosecutor of the Republic of Trani, summed up bluntly.
Another famous ‘ndrangheta tradition, until a few years ago, was a pilgrimage to a famous sanctuary in Polsi, a small mountain village in Calabria, for the feast of “Our Lady of the Mountain”, on September 2. The ‘ndrangheta leaders arrived from all over Calabria, Italy and abroad, to mingle with the pilgrims and to hold meetings to discuss criminal strategies and alliances, assigned degrees , and resolved disputes. “The house of Nicolino Grande Aracri, head of one of the most powerful clans, was full of statues and holy cards of St. Michael the Archangel and Our Lady of Polsi”, Deputy Prosecutor Manzini added again.
As reported by the criminologist Fabio Iadeluca, the mafia, camorra and ‘ndrangheta have been present in Italy for at least 200 years. The proceeds of their criminal activities bring in about 300 billion euros every year. And the economic crisis caused by the pandemic became a great opportunity for them: “there are thousands of entrepreneurs in difficulty to whom the mafias are ready to lend cash without asking for all the legal guarantees the banks ask for. But then the mafias also want their own advantage.”
In short, freeing Our Lady (and not only her) from the connection of the mafia is even more urgent today. So “we want the department to be a place to share experiences, collect and study documentation,” Father Stefano Cecchin says. “When we talk about freeing Mary from the mafias we mean freeing the human person from all forms of slavery. Even religion can be a form of slavery, when someone uses religion to manipulate the consciences of others.”
The next event is announced for May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima: an annual conference to present the first fruits of the department’s work, almost a year after its creation.
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